August 11, 2019
The legislature remained adjourned during July while news outlets reported snippets of information about quiet budget talks among legislative and executive branch leaders. Each chamber has passed a proposed budget, but a single budget has not been adopted for presentation to the Governor. The Senate says it will return August 26 and the House is likely to follow suit.
PENSION BONDING UDPATE
Last month—s startling news was a proposal from the West Michigan Policy Forum for the state to float $10 billion in 30-year bonds to pay down about a third of the unfunded liability in the school employee pension fund so that $800 million a year in general tax revenue could be freed up to fund road construction without the need to raise taxes (today at least). Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) expressed great enthusiasm for the idea; Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) was interested; Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) seemed at first open to the idea of delaying full funding of pensions, which might even include the state employee pension fund as well as the pension fund for school employees. By August 1 Whitmer was clarifying that she opposed pension bonding and extending the full funding date as a method of raising road fix dollars.
Educator response — The pension bonding idea united both education management and education unions in their opposition to securitizing the state—s pension funds or delaying the repayment of debt to find dollars for the state—s roads. The Michigan Association of School Boards Executive Director Don Wotruba and the Michigan Association of School Superintendents and Administrators Executive Director Chris Wigent penned an op-ed entitled Enough is Enough: Don—t Fix the Roads With Classroom Dollars to urge legislators to find real revenue to fix the roads and not increase costs in the school employee pension fund by extending debt payments.
Paula Herbart, president of the 125,000 member Michigan Education Association, and David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers of Michigan, said in a joint statement that pension bonding is a “dangerous idea that should be rejected because it could undermine the retirement of hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents, drive the state deeper into debt, and saddle taxpayers with massive future costs.”
Coalition opposes — The Coalition for a Secure Retirement, composed of public employee organizations including SERA, sent a letter to Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Budget Director Chris Kolb, Office of Retirement Service Director Kerrie VandenBosch, and majority and minority leaders in the Senate and House objecting to the proposal. The letter said that such a plan would endanger future retirement benefits for retirees and employees.
Sales tax on fuel — The current six percent sales tax on fuel goes mostly to schools and local government. House Republicans apparently want to enact an unspecified fuel tax that would be a revenue-neutral replacement for the sales tax on fuel, which depending on the price of gas, would equate to 15 to 18 cents per gallon. The Governor has proposed a 45 cent increase in the fuel tax. Michigan currently has a 23.6 cent fuel tax, one of the lowest in the region.
Contact your state legislators — State legislators need to hear from state employee retirees about risking our pension funds to temporarily support other state obligations such as fixing the roads. Fixing the roads requires a permanent source of revenue, not putting up state pensions as collateral for a loan. You can find the contact information for your state senator and representative at www.michiganlegislature.org.
Proposal 2 Challenge — Michigan voters passed Proposal 2 by a 61-39 landslide in 2018 to create an Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission, but Republicans filed a federal lawsuit on July 30 seeking to block the new commission and retain lawmakers— control over the process.
The lawsuit argues that the constitutional amendment establishing the new commission violates Republicans— First Amendment rights to free speech and association and their 14th Amendment right to equal protection because the amendment imposes prohibitions on who may serve as a commissioner. Specifically, the new commission disqualifies anyone who, in the past six years, has held or run for elected office, or has served as a lobbyist, and anyone who is a parent, spouse, or child of such a person. Several Republicans who hold or have held such disqualifying positions are plaintiffs in the suit.
Apply for the Commission — Applications for the Commission will be available later this year. A special SOS Web page is now available with a notification sign-up feature. SERA members are urged to apply for the Commission!
2011 Redistricting Challenge — On April 25, a three-judge federal panel held in a lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters of Michigan that Michigan Republicans— redistricting in 2011 was so partisan that it constituted an unconstitutional and illegal gerrymander. The court ordered new lines drawn by the legislature and Governor by August 1, 2019 and special elections in 34 state House and state Senate districts and all 14 Michigan—s U.S. Congressional districts in 2020. On June 27 the USSC in a 5-4 decision held that partisan gerrymandering is not unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution and that lawsuits challenging partisan gerrymandering are a political issue best left to states to decide. The USSC decision effectively finished the Michigan challenge of the 2011 political districts.
LAME DUCK “ADOPT AND AMEND”
In September 2018, the Legislature adopted voter-initiated laws increasing the minimum wage and requiring paid sick time, which Michigan SERA had endorsed during the petition signature gathering process. After the November 2018 election when it was clear that there would no longer be a Republican governor to support amending the measures after January 1, 2020, Republican lawmakers passed scaled-back, employer-friendly versions of those proposals, which then-Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed into law. The laws became effective March 29, 2019.
Supporters of the initiative petitions said the move was unconstitutional since the laws were adopted and amended in the same legislative session. Republicans have maintained the amendments were proper and asked the Michigan Supreme Court for an advisory opinion to that effect.
The Michigan Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments on whether it should issue an advisory opinion on the “adopt and amend in the same legislative session” strategy. Michigan SERA Executive Board decided to participate in a friend-of-the-court brief authored by Attorney Richard McHugh on a pro bono basis on behalf of SERA, and two other non-partisan, non-profit organizations opposing “adopt and amend.” Oral argument was held at the Hall of Justice in Lansing July 17, which I attended along with SERA Legislative Committee member Carol Cukier. We await the high court—s advisory opinion when it returns after Labor Day.
AUGUST 6 PRIMARY
Absentee ballots — Because of the passage of Proposal 3 last November, all voters may vote absentee by mail. The popularity of this change in the law was clearly revealed August 6. In Lansing with 11 percent voter turnout, 76 percent voted absentee. In Meridian Township (near Lansing), with just under 23 percent turnout, 58 percent voted absentee. In Rochester Hills, 81 percent of voters voted absentee in the August elections.
Some election officials are calling for changes in the law to allow for early or later tabulation of absentee votes because the current staffing and machine tabulators are projected to be inadequate for the volume of absentee voters this November and in the 2020 elections.
Marijuana goes down — Voters in three municipalities that voted for Proposal 1 of 2018 legalizing recreational marijuana rejected authorizing marijuana businesses in their communities – Vanderbilt, Highland Park and Crystal Lake Township. It was the first test of a provision in Proposal 1 of 2018 that allows citizens to authorize marijuana businesses in their communities via petition and a public vote in case a city, village or township board refused to authorize marijuana businesses. More than 500 Michigan communities have opted out of allowing recreational marijuana establishments. Several similar proposals are expected in November. The three results suggest that just because voters in a community passed recreational marijuana legalization, they do not necessarily want all types of marijuana businesses in their community.
Millages — Seventy percent of property tax hike millages were approved on August 6 where they were on the ballot. Gongwer News Service reported 30 of 43 millage increases passed; 8 of 9 public safety millage increases passed; four of five school bond proposals passes, and all three parks and recreation millage proposals passed. Voters defeated five of the eight general millage proposals and five of the eight sinking fund millage increases.
Candidates — On the candidate front, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and State Rep. Sheldon Neeley will face off for mayor of Flint. Weaver survived a recall attempt against her in 2017. This is Neeley—s last term in the House.
Red flag bills — Recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton where 31 people were killed and dozens more were injured by shooters with assault-style weapons have raised issues about where Michigan is on gun regulation. The Legislature has before it a number of bills dealing with what are called red flag laws: HB 4283, HB 4284, HB 4285, SB 156, SB 157 and SB 158. Red flag laws would allow family, domestic partners, or law enforcement to request from a judge an “extreme risk protection order” that would ban a person determined to pose a significant risk of injury to others or themselves from buying, owning,, or possessing a firearm for a certain amount of time.
Pro and con — President Donald Trump has stated that he supports gun control laws allowing courts to issue extreme risk protection orders temporarily blocking certain individuals from purchasing guns or providing for confiscation “through rapid due process.” More than a dozen states have some form of red flag law. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supports red flag legislation. But in a Detroit News article State Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) stated that red flag legislation, including bills Democrats introduced in Lansing, would violate an individual—s right to due process and treat a symptom while ignoring the underlying issue of the country—s mental health crisis.
Guns are used to kill more than 1,100 Michigan residents each year, and nearly 60% of those are suicides, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
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